Minneapolis is a War Zone, So the Rules of War Should Apply
The Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz has a famous quote “War is politics by other means”. Beyond the collapse of peace talks between nations the same aphorism can and should be applied when local politics comes to a complete standstill and political institutions fail to adequately address grievances and deliver justice.
The failure of politics in Minneapolis, and the United States as a whole, has given people no choice but to take to the streets and attack the police head-on as the killers of George Floyd remain uncharged with his murder. Like war between nations, a war waged on the streets between protestors and police is never something to be taken lightly, but ultimately the only option once conventional politics has been exhausted.
The abject failure of the US political system to root out consistent and systemic racism within its institutions also makes the use of violence against the state a justifiable and legitimate response. In my opinion, the actions of some protestors to burn down police stations and destroy police cars was a radical but still proportionate means of political action given the inability of conventional political action to deliver them justice.
So how does one draw an equivalency between the riots in Minneapolis and war? Like riots, war is a form of organised political violence, the subjugation of a state by another state (or group of states) in order to enforce a particular political goal. In some cases this is punitive, like the First Gulf War for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait or the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia. Both of these cases involved parts of the international community reacting to stop the violation of the rights and integrity of groups of people whether it be the Kuwaiti state or the Kosovar Albanians.
Why should using political violence, in reaction to the violation of rights, be only limited to states? In democratic states should it not be the right of people to defend their rights when one of their own is murdered by the apparatus made to protect them? Insurrection around oppressive rule is the foundation of the United States and 1776 isn’t even the first example of unsuccessful and successful attempts to combat tyranny against sub-national (including police) authority.
Many advocates of the riotous tactics used by the Minneapolis protests are happy to draw this equivalency to America’s revolutionary past, and rightly so. The connection between war and politics is inseparable, and this applies whether between nations or between the people and a compromised authoritarian police force.
However, there comes a crucial element that tends to distinguish war from all other forms of political violence, and that element is the rules. The Geneva Conventions and even the unwritten conventions in the minds of popular consciousness (civilian casualties ought to be avoided as much as possible, destruction of property should only occur when necessary to reach military objectives) exist to lend legitimacy to military action and enshrine it in protections that ensure bystanders and non-combatants do not fall victim to the conflict, even with tacit recognition that the conflict itself is just and allowed to take place.
As much of the news coverage over the past few days demonstrates, the riots were not only targeted at the police or the state but across dozens of large and small businesses alike with looting and destruction abound. Using the logic of war, these actions would never (or at least should never) be tolerated if an army were to do the same when occupying a city.
Even if most detractors of the rioters won’t ever draw the same equivalence, the standards set by the conduct of war (often set very highly by the more left-leaning supporters of the riots) remains in the back of public consciousness. Targets (pun unintended) which remain tangential to the conflict at hand between corrupt law enforcement and the people would be picked up as excessive and used as a propaganda, as it already is. Using just the Second World War for examples, the rape and pillage of Germany by the Red Army still remains as fodder for Nazi apologists today. The virtue of the Pacific campaign is shrouded by the ethics of atomic bombing on civilians. Despite the far greater horrors committed by the Nazis, the RAF bombing of Dresden is lamented and spoken with regret today. Even wars with the most just causes can be tarnished when innocents are harmed in the process.
I have come under some criticism by friends and strangers for decrying the looting and destruction of Minneapolis despite my vehement support for the black community in fighting for justice against the police department. But it is absolutely crucial that to win such a war would mean playing by the rules we ourselves have set for the state that we seek to punish.
It is imperative that supporters of the riots do not descend into attacking bystanders or local amenities simply under shoddy “ends justify the means” reasoning. Not only is it patently an untrue excuse as it does little to actually go towards achieving the ends (which is justice for George Floyd and all the other unarmed people of colour who are murdered by police without impunity) but it actively gives reactionaries, racists and fascists the material they need to de-legitimise the cause of justice. As I write this the President of the United States is deploying the National Guard to shoot protestors on sight, using only the looting specifically as a justification for a greater clamp down and inevitably the deaths of yet more unarmed people of colour.
But I recognise riots cannot be totally analogous to the organised and rational basis conventional wars are fought under. A mob does not have unified leadership, nor do all members of it condone indiscriminate looting and destruction. And yet these actions, in which innocent homes and businesses are targeted, should be regrettable- not excused or even praised as they serve to de-legitimise the riots as senseless opportunism, just as much of the media did during the 2011 England riots that saw then-mayor Conservative Boris Johnson re-elected on a law and order platform.
Ultimately, minimising damage done to third parties during a contentious struggle is the best way to win the propaganda war among those who actually enact change: the people at the ballot box. It is no coincidence that the stream of landmark civil rights legislation in the US actually slowed after 1964 parallel with the escalation of rioting, culminating in a Republican presidency four years after a landslide Democratic victory and the signing of the most powerful civil rights legislation to date.
It is incredibly frustrating to see the opportunity for change squandered when people attack unnecessary targets. By smashing up a small business, or even a giant like Target or Autozone- who are you winning over? And who do you risk alienating? You will not be welcomed as liberators if you destroy someone’s livelihood, especially during a major recession and pandemic.
To make this tactical error glaringly obvious its worth considering multiple false reports of undercover police officers supposedly escalating riots by smashing windows and encouraging the mob. Agent provocateurs, as these people are sometimes known, exist because they know that every destroyed business, every person unemployed or hurt by this becomes another ally for the status quo and real radical change becomes crushed. The fact that people were jumpy and thought this could be the case clearly shows that consciousness that there exists a motivation for police to have the protestors conduct these actions.
This is a plea for protestors not to fall into the traps that police themselves are setting actively or passively. Disrupting and attacking the police and their apparatus remains highly defensible even for conservatives and other people who place private property over human life, once that line is crossed the path to victory is narrowed continuously and dangerously.
As troops storm the streets the worst case scenario is ahead of us, the destruction caused by riots has led to popular support for reactionary clampdowns which is set to create a self perpetuating cycle of oppression: riots and increasingly authoritarian legislators elected by the white majority (and even many older blacks, as with the Clinton crime bill) to deal with the symptoms but not the root problem.
There is another quote about war that remains resonant with me when seeing the events of Minneapolis unfold, it’s not really attributable to anyone like Clausewitz but it’s usually something like “We have won the war but lost the peace”. Without a satisfactory settlement in the aftermath of the riots, the efforts for which all of this was conducted would be for nought, or indeed for worse than before. Winning the war against police murder is a just and desperately needed one, it is too precious to be squandered.